The Future of Avionics

While the airframe and engine technology used in light aircraft hasn't changed much in the last twenty years, their avionics have progressed at lightspeed. Today's Bonanza, Centurion or Mooney TLS may well sport a GPS, moving map display, sferics weather avoidance gear, even an EFIS. The rapid advance in lightplane electronics will continue, and here's a peek at what you can expect next.


It is certainly awe-inspiring to witness the cascade of new avionicsthat are unveiled continuously. But what about the future? Whatcan we expect to see in the months and years ahead? Well, theblack box manufacturers are notoriously reticent about revealingwhat’s being cobbled up in their respective skunkworks; for onething, they don’t want to give away their plans to the competition,and for another, they’re not eager to undercut the sales of theircurrent products. But we can come up with a pretty good picture,based on a combination of industry trends, tidbits picked up hereand their, and information released by the government.

So here goes. Let’s start with some of the innovations that havealready been pioneered by several manufacturers and are likelyto multiply into a wide range of products. And you won’t be surprisedto note that all of these new directions relate to Global PositioningSystem nav receivers and other GPS-oriented devices.


These are systems that combine-either all in one box or in separatemodules-GPS nav with VHF comm capability. In this case, the wholeis greater than the sum of its parts because the GPS positioninformation is used by the system’s computer to call up the appropriatecomm frequencies for the pilot to select. The most sophisticatedof these systems to date is Northstar’s Smart/Comm; as an exampleof how it uses its smarts, if you have just fired up, Smart/Comm’scomputer knows you are not moving and will therefore present youwith your airport’s ATIS, clearance delivery, ground control,and tower frequencies. You can select the desired frequency andactivate it at the press of a key-and so on, throughout all theregimes of your ensuing flight. Bendix/King offers two not-quite-as-cleverGPS/comms, one of which is a hand-held. It’s a fairly easy predictionthat we’ll be seeing more GPS/comms of varying degrees of sophistication,and in time the VOR-based nav/comm will be a museum piece.

PC Updates:

More and more manufacturers are offering interface kits that enablethe user to update the GPS database by means of a diskette anda cable connection to a personal computer. Some of the softwareallows you to perform additional functions, such as uploadingflight plans (routes) and downloading the track history of a flight.This capability will expand to the point where you will be ableto update the operating software of your receiver in the sameway. If, for example, the manufacturer comes up with a map thatshows rivers, highways, and cities, you’ll be able to plug thisimprovement into your receiver via the PC interface. II Morrow’snew Precedus hand-held has this PC updatability, plus a relativelylarge amount of memory for expansion. The Precedus is designedalong the lines of a PC. A new company called Avidine goes evenfurther, with a panel-mounted system whose open architecture willaccept software from third party vendorstruly like a PC.

Precision Approaches:

GPS in the IFR environment has made rapid strides, and there arenow more than 4000 GPS non-precision approaches, with more beingadded all the time. The goal is to have at least one approachfor nearly every public use airport. Precision approaches, withvertical as well as lateral guidance, will require supplementalequipment, since GPS altitude data is not sufficiently preciseat present. A technology known as differential GPS will be utilizedfor precision approaches. This involves the use of ground-basedmonitors that can correct the GPS errors, using their own locationsas a reference. At present, a few GPS precision approaches arebeing installed in Canada and Australia; we should start gettingsome in the US by 1997.

Color Moving Maps:

Until recently, there was a GPS receiver that had a built-in colormoving map, and that was Ashtech’s Altair AV-12, substantiallypriced at $8,500. But Ashtech has discontinued the AV-12 and goneout of the aviation business, which is unfortunate. Color is notjust pretty to look at; it is useful in such functions as helpingthe pilot to differentiate between, say, airport and VOR icons,and can provide a visual alert to nearby special use airspace.Eventide now offers color versions of their Argus 5000 and 7000,and Avidine (mentioned above) along with another new company calledArchangel, have color map systems in the prototype stage. Of course,you can assemble a color system using a GPS sensor, moving mapsoftware, and a color laptop or notebook PC, but while this typeof setup has certain advantages, an all-in-one panel-mounted systemis neater and more convenient.

With their incomparable graphic position information, moving mapsare deservedly growing in popularity, and they will be a "must"in future receivers. At first, many of them may still be monochrome,but look at what happened with weather radar systems: the originalmodels were monochrome and today they are all color. Incidentally,Eventide’s color display (along with most radar units, and TVsets as well) utilizes cathode ray tube technology. This willbe supplanted by LCD active matrix color, which draws less current,is a lot cooler, and can be manufactured in depths of only aninch or so. LCD color displays are used today in some corporateand commercial avionics (as well as upper-end laptop and notebookcomputers), but they are presently more expensive than CRTs.

Collision Avoidance:

As pilots, we are concerned with colliding with two types of objects:those on the ground, such as terrain and man-made structures,and those in the air-mostly other aircraft. GPS equipment canvastly reduce both types of risk. Ground objects are the easier,because their locations can be plotted and embedded in a receiver’sdatabase. Then, since the receiver knows where you are, includingyour approximate altitude, it can alert you when you are in proximityof a mountain, TV tower, etc. In fact, Arnav presently offerssuch a system, the MFD 5000, but since it takes up a pretty sizableamount of panel real estate, it’s not for everybody. As for collisionavoidance with other aircraft, eventually we can expect to beusing a plane-to-plane system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance,which will utilize on-board GPS equipment that will continuouslybroadcast its position to other similarly equipped aircraft. Obviously,the effectiveness of this system will be directly related to howmany aircraft will have the equipment on board.

GPS Attitude Indicator:

Someday the gyro-operated attitude indicator may be a thing ofthe past. Experiments are in progress using GPS sensors on variousparts of the airplane for attitude information. For example, theequipment would know if you were in a left bank because your leftwing would have a lower GPS altitude than your right wing. That’san oversimplification, and keep your present attitude indicatorin good repair, because this development has a way to go.

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Well, that’s our glimpse into the future, soundly based on knowntechnology. There’ll be more to come, so stay tuned.